Spirituality

Why Do You Repeat Your Sins?

Saying "next time it will be different" isn't enough

“Nothing so fosters false hopes and wishful thinking as much as the first four hours of a diet.”

We grit our teeth, we clench our fists, we resolve, “This time, it’s going to be different!” We have our eyes on the prize, and then… we wake up clutching an empty box of Krispy-Kreme Donuts. We’re disappointed, but not surprised—this sequence has happened to us before.

Now, let’s make it worse: “Nothing so fosters false hopes and wishful thinking as much as the first four hours after confession.”

It might be four minutes, four hours or four days. We make a sincere confession and then, before long, we find ourselves repeating our sins. What’s going on?

Although we may well understand sacramental confession, and are committed to an honest examination of conscience, and we have sorrow for sin, and perform penance for sin, we may still—apparently—just fall into sin not very long afterwards. I say “apparently” because repeating sins after confession is explained brilliantly by poet Portia Nelson:

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

 Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

“I walk down another street.” That sounds very much like the last line from the Act of Contrition we learned as children: “I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” The problem isn’t with the resolution, or with God’s grace. The problem is that we do not always look closely enough at the circumstances of our sin or the motivations for our sin. Consequently, we should not be surprised when we repeat our sins.

Twelve-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous can give us some guidance. (Read about A.A. founder Bill W.’s Jesuit spiritual director HERE.) They teach the acronym, “H.A.L.T.—Don’t let yourself become so hungry, angry, lonely, or tired that you start drinking again.” Clearly, we must be alert to the circumstances that facilitate our sin. For example, if you know that you take up alcohol or pornography when you are bored, then connect with friends when the boredom starts to creep in.

Knowing the circumstances of our sin can help us with the near occasions of our sin. What about the resolution to sin no more? The painful truth is that when we choose sin, we reveal that we love our idol more than we love friendship with God. We must confront ourselves and ask, “Why?” We might turn to a vice such as lust or gluttony (and vices always become idols) because we do not trust God. That’s been a problem since Genesis 3. Or we might turn to sin as a shortcut to managing the pain in our lives. (“If you had a spouse like mine, you’d drink too!”) A.A. answers: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink!” In other words, the pain of our lives can become an exercise in self-pity which becomes an excuse for sin. Breaking with a habit of sin requires establishing a habit of turning towards the living and loving God, and not any dead idol, whenever we find ourselves in need or in pain.

The resolution to “sin no more,” also known as a “firm purpose of amendment,” depends upon not only our good will but also our knowledge—our knowledge of the circumstances of our sin and of the motivations for our sin. Without this knowledge, even if we say “This time it will be different,” it likely won’t be different. Before your next confession, when you examine your conscience, ask God for the grace to see the circumstances and motivations that led to your sin. Then, when you promise in the confessional to “sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin,” you will know precisely what you are promising, and so will be able—with God’s grace—to act accordingly.

When I write next, I will speak of the prophetic voice of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

[Editor’s Note:
Take the Poll — Do You Repeat Your Sins?. To hear Fr. McTeigue discuss this piece on Relevant Radio, click here.]

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ

 

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.  He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and now works in seminary education.